The Blog

Taste, Toil and Ethnicity

Tastes travel and they travel well, obviously in terms of produce as the history of potatoes, chilies, and tomatoes show, or as stimulants such as coffee, tea and chocolate. Not so obviously tastes have also travelled well via immigrant-designed food businesses in global cities.
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Tastes travel and they travel well, obviously in terms of produce as the history of potatoes, chilies, and tomatoes show, or as stimulants such as coffee, tea and chocolate. Not so obviously tastes have also travelled well via immigrant-designed food businesses in global cities that sell pizza, pasta, lomein, kebab, and haute French cuisine.

Birthplace and occupations data in the U.S. since 1850 show that immigrants have dominated feeding occupations such as baker, butcher, restaurateur, and cook. In New York City, foreign-born comprise 59 percent of these and other service occupations, reflecting a national trend. On the other hand, young and professional urban dwellers have been amenable to changing their palate, and in doing so provided new possibilities in the political-economy and cultural-politics of immigrant inhabitation.

When we insert immigrant conceptions into considerations of taste they jeopardize the consensus around good food. In particular, a visibly different immigrant has been turned into an ethnic in the last half-century. An ethnic is a proximate but subordinate other. Among sub-cultural and avant garde groups, the people so categorized, are sometimes presumed to carry the promise of cultural creativity. It is a story of subordination and power in the domain of palatal taste that challenges standard theories of culture-making.

Among those who write eloquently about food, a number of technical and conceptual reasons can be attributed to the blindness toward the immigrant provider. There is disdain and disinterest in a different criterion of judgment. It is also the low-prestige of care-work, unheroic labor of micro-entrepreneurship, the inability to articulate in language the taste of the tongue, limited language skills of scholars working with recent migrants, and the over-worked migrant without the time or literacy to write, that have compounded dominant access to that perspective. Some of it is the presumption that good taste springs out of the head, sometimes the soul, from a disembodied community, blind to bodily difference.

Normative disembodiment is not only limited to the sphere of the West. Strands of Brahmanism, which is one of the points of my departure, also make elaborate arguments against the abject materiality of the body, especially the socially inferior's body, and its lack of liaison with the divine. Superior men have theorized away the body and its everyday needs, out of the domain of serious deliberation in the academy.

That concordat is disintegrating all around us, in particular in the Anglo-Saxon Western academy, where cooking was never taken seriously, as the importance of the mind and reason are dialed down, and subordinate classes have entered the academy and begun to violate its ontological assumptions of superior bodies and high-mindedness. The sharpest retort to old-fashioned theorizing has already been preemptively delivered by the seventeenth-century Hispanic Baroque scholar Sor Juana Iñes de la Cruz, who in responding to the chastisement of a powerful bishop noted, "If Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more."

In their cultural history of Italian cuisine, Capatti and Montanari show how pizza and pasta have become the most recognizable signs of Italy the further we go from it. They ask, "What is the glory of Dante compared to spaghetti?" Instead of insisting on the distinctions between palatal taste in literature, they underline the point of contact between mundane practice and high art, where, "Along with the exchange of food products... [there] is also an exchange of documents and recipes. This lively traffic... is vital for good taste. In fact, without realizing it, when we eat spaghetti we also ingest something of Dante." On that ringing note Capatti and Montanari flatten the aesthetic hierarchy set in place in Early Modern Europe.

These are some of the contexts and conditions that undergird my work: paying attention to literal taste in talking about aesthetic taste; and attending to migrant materialities. That is what connects taste, toil and ethnicity. Ethnic insertion in urban cultures demands a long over-due acknowledgment of the social importance of bodily difference, based on local and fleeting forms of classifications of skin, color, texture, hair, feature, language... in their relationship to race and nation. In the eyes of its central theorists, the culture of modernity was premised on full and singular national belonging. Within that frame, emigration is a betrayal of the nation, and ethnicity a residue of un-meltable difference.

Literal taste was subordinated to aesthetic taste, but the former has always carried the trace of the subordinate, which is precisely why it has been subordinated in the temples of high culture--museums, libraries, academies. That consensus is falling apart today and the air is rife with possibilities. Disputing taste has become a legitimate and popular activity in the USA, some of which is the doing of the ethnic restaurateur, playing with the presumed triviality of taste among various American publics. Foreigners have always fed Americans, and Americans have eaten it up. That transaction in taste is central to the kinds of democratic openings in American culture that are tough to match almost anywhere else in the world, with their preference for roots.